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Sleep Dealer

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- It's great to see a film like "Sleeper Dealer" come from such a new, extremely talented and hugely ambitious filmmaker as Alex Rivera.

Here is someone unafraid to create science-fiction in a third-world setting or to play with ideas about technology run amok that may be futuristic but feel frighteningly plausible. The freshness and ingenuity of this techno-thriller should spark a cult following among sci-fi fans at the very least, but the film could make inroads among cineastes, adult adventure-seekers and the Latino community as well.

The script by Rivera and David Riker takes many of today's givens -- the Internet, video-sharing sites, outsourcing, illegal immigration, globalization -- and just imagines a more malevolent reality. For instance, imagine that Homeland Security really has managed to seal the U.S.-Mexican border with walls and technology. Then the labor problem gets solved when a digital network is created that can connect people everywhere. So in Tijuana, Mexico, workers with implanted nodes in their bodies can plug into this net, which allows their nervous systems to control robots that perform the required labor across the border.

Thus, the U.S. gets the work without the inconvenience of the workers, and the first and third worlds are kept neatly apart. These factories where Latino workers plug in have earned the nickname "sleep dealers" as they dangerously drain the mental and physical energy of the workers in 12-hour shifts.

The film's hero, Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), comes to Tijuana to work in one such place to support his family after an American drone jet destroys his home and kills his father. Security forces mistook Memo's homemade eavesdropping on their communications as the act of an "aqua-terrorist" who threatened the local water-supply system controlled by corporate interests.

On the bus, he meets a young woman, Luz (Leonor Varela), who aspires to be a writer. What she actually does is connect herself to the net with her implanted nodes. As she describes her day, the computer records her visual and aural memories. These memories or "stories" can be uploaded and purchased by anonymous Web surfers. It's blogging taken to an extreme.

When one such buyer expresses an interest in her story of the migrant worker who just came to Tijuana, she seeks Memo out again and develops a relationship with him so she will have more memories to sell. The keen buyer is none other than the Mexican-American pilot (Jacob Vegas), across the border, who guided the drone that hit Memo's house by remote control.

Rivera's story therefore allows the film to investigate this world of the near future, moving from a tiny pueblo unchanged for centuries to the big border city with its video phone booths and ghastly sleep dealer factories where an electrical surge can fry a worker in moments.

Rivera doesn't quite get the payoff his imaginative tale deserves. The paucity of characters and subplots make the movie more of a short story than a novelistic sci-fi like "The Matrix" or "Blade Runner." The film's small scale doesn't quite fit its huge ambitions. One could imagine a sequel or even a remake that delves deeper into the world of sleep dealing and of the draconian security so frighteningly sketched by Rivera here.

This film grew out of a project at the Screenwriters and Directors Lab at the Sundance Institute. There can be no more fitting tribute to the fine developmental work being done at those labs than to say that "Sleep Dealer" is one of Sundance 2008's most exciting Dramatic Competition entries.

SLEEP DEALER
Likely Story in association with This Is That Prods.
Credits:
Director/editor: Alex Rivera
Writers: Alex Rivera, David Riker
Producer: Anthony Bregman
Executive producers: Guy Naggar, Peter Klimt
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Production designer: Miguel Angel Alvarez
Music: Tomandandy
Costume designer: Adela Cortazar
Visual effects supervisor: Mark Russell
Cast:
Memo: Luis Fernando Pena
Luz: Leonor Varaela
Rudy: Jacob Vegas
David: Tenoch Huerta
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating